Boar's head

Alexander Nisbet's Heraldic Plates - Part 3
Andrew Ross & Francis J. Grant

Boar's head

Ross, Andrew (Marchmont Herald) and Grant, Francis J. (Carrick Pursuivant): Alexander Nisbet's Heraldic Plates, Originally Intended for his System of Heraldry, Lately Found in the Library of William Eliott Lockhart, Esq. of Cleghorn, Now Reproduced with Introduction and Notes, Genealogical and Heraldic. Edinburgh: George Waterston & Sons, MDCCCXCII.


Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - The Origins of the Nisbet Family
Part 3 - Sir Alexander Nisbet and his descendants
Part 4 - Alexander Nisbet, "the Herald"
Part 5 - Memoranda re Branches of the Nisbet Family

Sir Alexander Nisbet

From the commencement of the troubles in Scotland, sir Alexander Nisbet was a devoted adherent of king Charles. It has not been ascertained when he received the honour of knighthood, though it possibly was in 1633, when he was appointed sheriff of the county of Berwick, in which year he receives the designation in public and private writs. He resided in Scotland at least until 1641, being then deprived of his sheriffship, which was conferred upon sir Alexander Swinton of that ilk, his brother-in-law, who with his family were supporters of the covenanting party. According to the herald, sir Alexander and his sons, on the covenanters obtaining power, were forced to leave the country. They proceeded to England to join the king's army, where they "served in honourable posts with valour and untainted loyalty."

Before leaving Scotland sir Alexander's estates had become seriously encumbered. The building of the mansion-house of Nisbet accounts no doubt for part of the expenditure. But he had received by his wife a large fortune, more than sufficient to build Nisbet, stately though it be, and his paternal estate, so far as can be gathered, was at the date of his succession free from debt. The registers shew that he borrowed sums exceeding 100,000 merks between 1638 and 1640, the chief portion being in 1638, the eventful year in which the national covenant was subscribed in Scotland. The only imaginable reason to be assigned for the proceeding is that given by sir Alexander and his grandson, that the money was to be devoted to the service of the king, and to form part of the fatal treasure by which Charles for a time was made independent of his parliament. The position occupied in the English army by the eldest son sir Philip, who on the outbreak of war was abroad, and on his return to England was given the command of a regiment by Charles, implies a deep obligation on the part of the king, and corroborates, if it does not confirm, the statements of the herald and his grandfather.

In 1641 the creditors began to grow troublesome, and in the following year several apprisings were led against West Nisbet. In the executions attached by the officers to these judicial processes they state that "they passed to the place of West Nisbet, where sir Alexander had his residence within this realm," and found neither property in the castle nor stock on the lands. Sir Alexander was duly put to the horn, and his wife was dispossessed of the holding of Runniltonlaw, where she had resided for some time after the departure of her husband and elder children from Scotland. No trace of the career of sir Alexander during the three years of his absence in England has been discovered, but when the king's military power in that country came to an end by the battle of Naseby, fought 14th June 1645, he returned to Scotland, where he was promptly seized by the creditors and imprisoned in the tolbooth of Edinburgh. But deliverance soon came. When the victory of Kilsyth, 15th August 1645, made Montrose for a moment master of Scotland, Edinburgh surrendered, and the victor released from prison the father and mother of his companion in arms.

The Struggle for the Estate.

Then commenced a civil war upon a small scale. The old knight returned to West Nisbet and took up his residence in the castle, his fifth son Adam, the father of the herald, being his right hand and counsellor in every act of defiance to legal process. So early as 1639 an apprising had been led against the estate by Mr Robert M`Gill, advocate, for the sum of 40,970 merks. In 1642 M`Gill conveyed the security to his son James, who took infeftment, the conveyance including the lands of West Nisbet, Mungoiswallis, Ryshill, Fleures, Glourourem, Wildnickhall, Nisbet, Nisbethill, Crwnkle, Weittiswallis, with the mill of West Nisbet. Other creditors followed M`Gill's example. Apprising upon apprising, followed by letters of horning, warrants for poinding, and letters of caption, flowed in endless succession, and although the old form of diligence known as letters of four forms, had been abolished in Scotland a generation before, many of the creditors had recourse to that cumbrous and expensive method of enforcing payment. Expenses accumulated against the property to an extent rendering hope of redemption out of the question. Sir Alexander, however, defied all comers. It is indeed an instructive commentary upon the state of Scotland at the time that for four years after his liberation from prison he was able to hold his own at West Nisbet, and set law and order at defiance. The struggle for the possession of the rents of the property was incessant. On the one hand were the creditors with their decrees, on the other Nisbet house garrisoned by sir Alexander and his sons Robert and Adam, - a soldier and a lawyer, - supported by neighbours like Mow of Mowismaynes, to whose border spirits and royalist proclivities a scrimmage and the routing of the legal representatives of the party of Warriston and Argyll were incidents for legitimate delight. The assistance of the sheriff - Swinton of that ilk - was demanded in vain. The sheriff was never to be found when wanted to harry his old friend and neighbour. After a two years' struggle a truce was called, and in the spring of 1647 sir Alexander, with consent of a number of his creditors, petitioned parliament for a protection to permit him to come to Edinburgh to arrange his affairs. A protection extending from 4th February to 15th March was granted, on condition of the petitioner exhibiting his sasine of West Nisbet, the want of this sasine having been all along the great stumbling-block in the path of the creditors. It had been executed on sir Alexander's marriage in 1609, but the act rendering registration of sasines imperative not having been passed until 1617, it did not appear on the register. The negotiations for an arrangement fell through, the sasine remained unrecorded, and on 26th March 1647 the creditors presented a supplication to parliament in which they give an account of the rescue of sir Alexander by Montrose in 1645, and of his retaining possession of his sasine of the lands, and "desyring that the parliament wald declare that fourtie years possession of the saids lands by West Nisbet and his father with his awin signator at the privy seal" in 1609 should be "ane sufficient grund and warrant to maintain the creditors 'richts and comprisings,'" and asking also for a special warrant to the sheriff of Berwick to apprehend sir Alexander. An act in terms of the prayer of the petition was passed, and left the creditors in the same plight as before; the old knight defied the parliament as he did the session. But there remained the special warrant in the act addressed to the sheriff for the apprehension of the debtor, and to the warrant recourse was now had. It proved as useless a weapon as any of its predecessors; the sheriff was never at hand, and when the enraged creditors raised an action of horning to compel him to fulfil the duties imposed upon him by the act, he suspended the charge, and West Nisbet remained master of the situation. Renouncing hope of getting possession of Sir Alexander or his title-deeds, it was resolved to make a determined effort to secure the rents of the property. Upon an application to the court of session giving a prolix narrative, after the fashion of the time, of the legal processes by which the estate had become encumbered with debt, the creditors asked for the appointment of a judicial commissioner, who should receive the rents to be paid over to the creditors, and Robert Pringle of Stitchil was on 31st July 1647 appointed commissioner. The tenants were duly warned of this step, and the only resource left to the family was to carry off the crop in anticipation of the commissioner's demands. Adam Nisbet and his friends actually did so, and letters of lawburrows were raised against them by some of the tenants, who feared being called upon to make restitution to Stitchil. It is worth while giving the names of the tenants who applied for lawburrows. Many of their holdings are represented now only by fields, while even the very names of the others are forgotten in the district.

Edmond Robertson, Fleures.
David Munro, Nisbet Mylne.
Thomas Nisbett, Glowrowrem.
James Nisbett, Blackdyke.
Alexander Bell, Crwnkle.
James Nisbett, Hiechlaw.
  John Bairnfather, Nisbethill.
James Robertson, do.
George Richardson, do.
John Dalgleisch, Pyotschaw.
Alexander Bell, Welcomben.
William Mershell, Godspeid.
  John Gibson, Mungoiswallis.
John Redpath, do.
Edmond Robertson, Walkmyln.
Adam Mershall, Watersyde.
John Wilson, do.
James Aikman, The Reiddis.

The letters of lawburrows were successfully served upon Adam Nisbet and his friends at the place of West Nisbet on 17th September 1647, with the usual result - victory remained with West Nisbet.

Ejection by Military Force.

In 1648, when Scotland was torn by those rival factions, who threatened on the one hand eternal perdition and on the other military execution against their opponents, an act of parliament was passed against sir Alexander confirming the act of 26th March 1647. It remained a dead letter. But in 1649, when the power of malignants on the one side and engagers on the other was overcome, it was considered intolerable that a solitary old cavalier should defy the authority of the government. On 16th March of that year a fourth act of parliament was passed. It retraverses the ground:- how sir Alexander was released from prison by "James Grahame;" how since then he had been "leiding the teinds and reifing the tenants;" how the sheriff and his deputies had been charged to apprehend the recusant and had failed to do so; how acts had been passed against him, "notwithstanding whairoff the said sir Alexander Nisbet of West Nisbet, his lady and childring, does still possess the houses and landes to the great contempt of the authority of the parliament, this being done so neir the seat of justice to the said supplicants their utter wrack and ruine;" and the sheriff of the county, it is pathetically declared, had used no diligence for apprehending the culprit. Fresh warrants for ejectment and imprisonment were granted, and a special instruction issued to the earl of Leven to use military force to vindicate the law.

After waiting three weeks to give sir Alexander time to obey, the committee of estates applied to the earl of Leven for a military force. His excellency, as "lord generall of the Scottish armies," accordingly issued a mandate, dated from Edinburgh 11th April 1649, addressed to the "laird of Swinton and all other officers and soldiers either horse or foot under my command," authorising them to take sir Alexander prisoner. The laird of Swinton, as usual, was not available, and the first military party to whom the messengers applied refused their aid, on the ground that they were already on special duty - the convoy of prisoners. A party of horsemen was, however, found at last, whose leader considered himself bound to execute the warrant, and the recusant was conveyed a prisoner first to Jedburgh, and afterwards, when all danger of rescue was passed, to Duns.

In the meantime an arrangement was made between (1) the creditors of West Nisbet, whose claims, according to the act of parliament of 1649, amounted to 80,000 merks more than the value the property, (2) John Ker, merchant burgess in Edinburgh, brother of sir Thomas Ker of Cavers, and (3) Swinton of that ilk on behalf of sir Alexander Nisbet and his family. Ker agreed to pay the creditors the sum of 105,000 merks, to be divided proportionally among them, on condition of each creditor assigning the entire rights under his bond. To Swinton, Ker agreed to pay the sum of 12,000 Scots for the benefit of sir Alexander Nisbet and his family. The disposition by the creditors to John Ker is dated 4th and 5th April 1649, and Ker immediately took possession of the property. But the old knight could not be induced to sign the agreement. He recognized the justice of the demands of his original creditors, but would not acknowledge those claims founded upon legal expenses. He held out for three years. At length, on 19th March 1652, compelled by necessity, he executed at Duns a disposition of the property to Mr John Ker; his surviving children, Adam, Jean, Elizabeth, Catherine, Helene, and Margaret, executing a similar deed and agreeing to deliver the old titles. Nothing can be more elaborate or solemn than the language in which sir Alexander assigns his rights and undertakes never to challenge the deed. But the purchaser was too well aware of the determined character of the old laird, and took every imaginable precaution to fortify his position. Every scrap of writing relating to the method by which the estate was acquired is preserved. Each creditor's original bond, with the wearisome processes following upon it, is in its own little "sheepskin pock," as Mr. Ker designated his receptacles, and the veritable sasine of 1609, the fruitful subject of years of litigation and legislation, now snugly reposes in the archives of Nisbet house.

Throughout the whole negotiations Ker acted the part of a cautious yet generous man. The sum of 12,000 he originally undertook to pay the West Nisbet family was increased to 23,000, and much of this money was advanced before he received the conveyance by sir Alexander and his children in 1652. Subsequently he took the precaution to get ratifications of the bargain from sir Alexander's principal friends, including the lairds of Swinton, elder and younger, the laird of Smeaton Hepburn, and others. Doubtless he foresaw what actually came to pass - a determined effort on the part of West Nisbet, when the inevitable change of government should arrive, to regain possession of the property.

The desperate tenacity with which sir Alexander defended his ancient heritage will excite sympathy but hardly wonder. For five centuries at least his ancestors had been settled there, and nowhere in broad Scotland is there a fairer spot. The lands of Nisbet lie in the lap of the Merse, a district so fertile that even the savagery of border warfare never did depopulate it nor throw it out of cultivation. From Duns, the county town of Berwickshire, the distances is two miles in a southeasterly direction, the road following a gentle slope, and running almost in a straight line until it strikes at right angles the highway leading on the right to Langton, and on the left to Wedderburn. Proceeding in the Langton direction for two or three hundred yards, and then turning southwards, the lands of Nisbet are reached; on the right hand is Welcomben and on the left is Reiddis. A quiet country road shared by fine trees leads to the entrance gate, a few steps further and we are in a noble park embracing in its boundaries the combined charm of hill, meadow, and stream. The kindliness of the soil is evidenced by the magnificent crop nodding gracefully in the summer breeze on the lands of Welcomben, and still more strikingly by the giant ash trees dotted at irregular intervals throughout the park. No ball planted dandies they, but stately fellows with trunks of fabulous girth and giant limbs stretching to the sky. One of the chief attractions of Nisbet is the striking diversity of its surface, concealing from the spectator the extent of the park, yet continually disclosing some fresh beauty. Then there is that sense of freedom induced by the wide open spaces and given by noble trees with ample room in which to live and thrive; and with it all an air of repose, a sweet oldfashionedness about the house and its immediate surroundings which, apart from its own stirring associations, invests the place with an absolute charm.

The "place of Nisbet" built by Sir Alexander and his wife dame Katherine Swinton, forms the most considerable part of the present mansion. Messrs Macgibbon and Ross in their monumental work on the Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland, Vol. IV. p. 340, describe the castle as an "oblong building, with a round tower at each end of the south front, and two square towers containing the staircases on the north side." About 1774 "the arrangements of the castle were evidently remodeled to a considerable extent, and a new entrance door provided on the south side. The original entrance was on the north, and is now built up. It is a simple lintelled doorway, surrounded with a great breadth of flat mouldings and surmounted by a heavy circular hood, above which a panel in the wall contains the owner's shield and initials. The ground plan of the castle is of an advanced kind, and consists of the usual oblong main structure, with rooms entering through each other and extending from side to side. . . . In addition to the hall on the floor, there is a large private room, and both the hall and the private room have chambers attached in the round towers. The house is provided with a wide public staircase in the western tower, and a private stair in the east tower, both of which lead up to the second floor. Along with these signs of advancement, it will be observed that there are also signs of defense in the numerous shot-holes in the staircases, seven being visible from one point of view. The arms over the old entrance doorway are those of the Kers, with the initials I. K. twice cut, and the motto 'Forward.'". By the kind permission of Messrs Macgibbon and Ross, the drawing of Nisbet which appears in their volume is reproduced on the following page.

It was quite characteristic of John Ker that on taking possession of the estate he did not destroy the Nisbet arms placed over the entrance by sir Alexander, but removed the stone on which they were carved to a corner in the burial-vault adjoining the house, where it has remained undisturbed to the present day. It is in perfect preservation, and lord Sinclair has kindly permitted a drawing to be made for the present work (p. xxiii.) The peculiar way in which the boar's head is couped on the shield and crest is quite contrary to the rule laid down by the herald himself, and so carefully adhered to in all his illustrations. Compare it with the Dean and Dirleton seals and other examples of boar's heads in the plates in the present volume.

Standing on the threshold of the old main entrance of Nisbet, it was impossible to help recalling for a moment the old days before the wars of the covenant when dame Katherine Swinton lived here, - the daughter of Swinton, the granddaughter of Yester, the proud and happy mother, - with her gallant band of boys - Phillip, John, Robert, Alexander, Adam. Seven years of Civil War passed, and where were they? One had died a soldier's death, and two others, after proving themselves as brave as he, perished under the axe of the executioner; her husband ruined and a fugitive, and she herself compelled to leave the last corner of the property which had afforded refuge. How long she bore up under so terrible an accumulation of trials it is hard to say - at least until 1649; her name does not occur in any of the deeds relating to the transfer of the property in 1652, and she must have died between the two dates.

From Nisbet tower, a corner of which is visible to the right in the illustration, the view extends over a lovely country, and every inch is classic ground. West Nisbet itself was the scene of a bloody overthrow of the Scots by the English, aided by the earl of March, on 22nd June 1401. Eastwards is Kimmerghame among the trees, still in the family of the friendly sheriff whose aid had been so frequently and uselessly implored by the creditors of West Nisbet. Northwards to the left lies Wedderburn, round which clusters a perfect literature of poetry and romance, and whose owners were alternately the allies and enemies of Nisbet. Beyond Wedderburn is Manderston. Langton lies to the west, about two miles away, while Duns law rises in the background, still bearing on its summit the marks of the encampment of the army of the covenant in 1639.

By the help of Mr William Watt, the worthy and intelligent forester on the estate, it is possible to localise many of the old places notwithstanding the sweeping changes of modern times. In a circle beneath us are the old Nisbet possessions. Pewtoune, "liand near the zettis of Nisbet," granted to sir Philip by king James IV. in 1497, is now Putton mill. Glowrowrem, a name exactly descriptive of the lie of the land, separates the north boundary of the park from Putton mill, and between us and Glowrowrem is Castelland. Eastward, in the Kimmerghame direction, are Fleuris, Mungoiswallis, Pyotschaw, and Watersyd. To the south and west are Nisbetmylne, Nisbethill, Weittiswallis, Heichlaw, Crwnkle, and Welcomben. It may have been that the charm of the old names and their associations was strong, but clustered there together they seemed to form, on one of the few bright days in the sulky summer of 1891, as fair a scene as the eye of man need rest upon. No wonder the old knight fought long and hard for his land; it was a heritage worth fighting for.

The Final Effort.

In 1653 sir Alexander Nisbet was in Ireland, where he purchased a piece of land. He remained in Ireland for several years

Time brought about the Restoration, and sir Alexander appears again on the scene. In 1660 he was in London petitioning Charles II. for a warrant for the creation of a baronet to supply him with money to return to Scotland and prosecute those who detained his fortune. Warrants for creation of title, adopted by Charles II. as an easy way of paying old debts, were issued blank and sold to any purchaser of decent family and certain income who would agree to give the price demanded by the seller. Sir Alexander, in his petition, tells how his eldest son, sir Philip, was taken at the battle of Philiphaugh and beheaded at Glasgow; the second, a major, was killed at the battle of York; the third, colonel Robert Nisbet, suffered death with the marquis of Montrose; and he himself, though eighty years old, was forced to fly to Ireland for a livelihood. Two slips in the petition may be attributable to old age and suffering; major Alexander was his fourth son, and he himself, supposing his father's marriage with Elizabeth Haldane to have taken place in 1582, would in 1660 be seventy-seven. In 1662 he renewed his petition for a baronet's patent to clear off his debts and transport him home; he reminded the king with the pathos of truth that his family had been faithful subjects six hundred years, and far surpassed the sufferings of any others in Scotland during the late wars, wherein his eldest son, sir Philip, was beheaded, the rest of his sons and most of his dearest relations slain, and his private fortune ruined; he was eighty-two years of age, and had attended in court ever since the Restoration for relief, and now wished to return and prosecute those who injuriously detained his estate. It is a satisfaction of a sort to find annexed to this second petition a certificate by sir W. Maynard that "Robert Jocelin of Hide Hall, county Hertford, has always been a loyal subject, is a justice of the peace for Essex, has 1000 a year, and is of an ancient family;" and on the certificate is endorsed "sir Alexander Nesbitt's baronet." The petition therefore was successful, and with the proceeds of the sale of the patent sir Alexander arrived in Scotland. He instantly presented a petition to the Scottish parliament, detailing his sufferings in the royal cause, the exactions of his creditors, and his apprehension at Nisbet; "and now, it having pleased God to restore again the kingis majestie and your lordships to your former rights, whereof all loyal subjects hope to be partakers," he demanded an inquiry into his case and a restitution of his property. On 17th June 1662 the petition was remitted to lords of session Whytekirk and Kinglassie to report to parliament. A reply on the part of Ker was given in. No account of the proceedings appears in the published acts of parliament, nor beyond the petition and reply are any papers preserved at Nisbet house; the reply indeed was too conclusive; it seems probable therefore that no further procedure took place, and the lands remain in possession of lord Sinclair, the lineal representative of the purchaser. It is now possible to understand how the herald, in giving an account of the genealogy of his family in the 1722 folio, complains, "from the charter chest of the family, which I suppose is in the custody of the present possessors of these lands, I cannot vouch anything, never having had access thereto," - and equally possible to comprehend the reasons for declining to afford him an opportunity for examination. Neither the date nor place of sir Alexander's death has been ascertained.

. Adam Nisbet, writer, Edinburgh, the youngest and only surviving son of sir Alexander Nisbet of that ilk, married, 24th March 1653, Janet, daughter of Alexander Aikenhead, writer to the signet (son of David Aikenhead, provost of Edinburgh from 1634 to 1637), and his wife, Helen Trotter, third daughter of John Trotter, first of Mortonhall. Their children were-
(1.) Elizabeth, baptised 12 February 1654.
(2.) Margaret, baptised 29th April 1656.
(3.) Alexander (See No. XII)
(4.) Catherine, baptised 6th June 1658.
(5.) Marione, baptised 2nd October 1659.
  (6.) Adam, baptised 1st September 1661.
(7.) Adam, baptised 14th June 1663.
(8.) Janet, baptised 5th February 1665.
(9.) Helene, baptised 18th November 1666.
(10.) John, baptised 3rd January 1669.

Though the name of Adam Nisbet does not occur in the list of members of the society of writers to the signet, he is designed in various record entries (such as the births of some of his children and elsewhere) as a W.S., and one of his daughters received gratuities from the W.S. fund. He gave his father vigorous aid in the long struggle carried on with the West Nisbet creditors, and his marriage with Janet Aikenhead took place the year after sir Alexander's departure for Ireland. He carried on the business of writer in Edinburgh, at the first in the office of his father-in-law, and afterwards on his own account. About 1666 he was possessed of some capital, his name appearing as a creditor in various bonds. His clients were chiefly Berwickshire people, and his name also occurs frequently as an agent in the Edinburgh burgh register. Shortly before his death he fell into difficulties and granted various personal bonds for considerable sums. He died 6th February 1674, survived by his widow and by at least his son Alexander and his daughter Janet. He was buried in Greyfriars churchyard.

Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - The Origins of the Nisbet Family
Part 3 - Sir Alexander Nisbet and his descendants
Part 4 - Alexander Nisbet, "the Herald"
Part 5 - Memoranda re Branches of the Nisbet Family

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